IRL -> online education

Philip Morgan

How do you take an IRL educational experience online? You don't.

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Forgive the strongly worded headline there. To elaborate: How do you take an IRL educational experience online? You don't unless you're willing to re-design it for a fundamentally different medium.

If you are willing to re-design, you have a lot of really cool options. But if you just want to treat an online setting like an emulator that runs the "code" of your IRL event without changing it, just don't. It'll suck.

In this article, I'm going to speak to educational experiences generally. This covers conferences, speaking as lead generation, and explicitly educational events like training classes, seminar, and workshops. There's much more to say about each one of these specifically, but I hope this article gets you thinking about the fundamentals that are important across all such educational events.

Gains and losses: When you take an educational experience online, you lose important things:

  • The full bandwidth of body language signals
  • The energy of being together in the same room
  • The kismet of unexpected interactions
  • The mental and emotional distance participants have from their normal day to day routine
  • The (potential) enhanced focus of the group being synced up and gathered in the same space

You lose other things too, but you get the idea.

My first suggestion: mourn these losses and move on. Feel how it hurts to lose these things and resolve to adapt to a new medium, which means decisively letting go of certain aspects of the IRL experience.

You may be absolutely incandescent when operating IRL. Good. You might not be so impressive at first in an online setting. Get over it. Trying to play to your IRL strengths in a setting where those strengths are impeded by the medium is a waste. Adapt instead.

And realize that you gain some things too with a move to online:

  • Really interesting ways you can use time to augment the educational experience
  • Interesting ways you can use the abstracted nature of online to augment
  • Interesting ways you can use media to augment

Let's explore each of these online assets.

Time: Gathering IRL has a money cost, a time cost, and an opportunity cost due to the travel involved. You can shed much of that cost in an online setting. This changes the parameters of meeting.

Instead of meeting once for several days, you can meet periodically over weeks or months. This lets your event or experience leverage three powerful modes for your participants:

  1. Meeting/interacting mode
  2. Working on your own mode
  3. Reflecting mode

If you're taking what was an IRL conference online, it's tempting to just use mode #1.

The challenge in designing a powerful online experience is making use of all three of these modes. You're wasting the power of the medium if you only make use of #1.

In a conference context, what if you had your presenters give assigments to participants and then show up a day or two later to interact with participants again, this time as a peer educator, and hear them present the outcome of their assignments and give feedback? This is just one of many possible configurations that would leverage all three modes.

Abstraction: They say public speaking is one of the most generally feared experiences. What about being alone, speaking into a webcam? That seems easier for most folks. How could you leverage this new freedom to speak coming from for folks who are normally intimidated by public speaking?

The physical distance and somewhat abstracted nature of speaking into a webcam makes participation easier in an online setting. At the same time, the "everybody's in their own private physical space talking to you on a multitasking distraction box" aspect of online events can make them feel lacking in cohesion.

You, as the organizer, need to create that missing cohesion. Here are some ideas for that:

  • Structure is helpful. Make sure participants know what to expect out of any live realtime meetings you do online.
  • Variety and surprise are helpful allies to the structure. Balance the structure with some amount of variety and outright unpredictability, to keep participants on their toes. Don't emotionally overwhelm participants by putting them on the spot in an unpleasant way, but also don't let folks sleepwalk through your events.

Media: The online experience flattens things and makes integrating a variety of media easier. Nobody has to scramble to find an adapter before they can present from their computer, because the ability for anybody to present almost any form of recorded or recordable media is built in to meeting software.

I really like this Twitter thread from Amy Hoy: She emphasizes how when you take an educational event online, the standardized parts of the experience -- lectures, primarily -- can be recorded and distributed and consumed differently than in a live teaching experience. This is an example of leveraging the power of media, abstraction, and time.

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If you want something that's more like a recipe, here's the one I use for my online workshops. If it's a useful starting point for you, great! Copy, paste, and adapt!

  • You can create a transformative educational experience with 4 weeks of somebody's engagement. You'll have to constrain the scope, but you can still create meaningful change for people, even if they work full time, with 4 weeks of their engagement via an online experience. This recipe will assume a 4-week long event.
  • Meet weekly for 60 to 90 minutes. Use Zoom if you don't have a preferred product. At $15/mo for the lowest paid tier, it's one of the best values going in online meeting software. Get the meetings on all participants calendars. Keep this part simple. I just set up a recurring event on my calendar for the meetings, make sure the Zoom meeting info is in the calendar invite, and then invite all participants.
  • Provide a single asynchronous way to communicate with participants. Slack is a reasonable default. Folks who are distracted by it have by now developed coping mechanisms, and folks who hate its shortcomings will use it despite those shortcomings. The company doesn't seem to be evil, so Slack is a sane default async communication tool for the event.
  • Record lectures and distribute them in an easily accessible way. If on a Mac, Deckset is great for rapid slide deck creation and Screenflow is great for recording lectures over slides (though Quicktime is a decent free alternative). If visuals aren't important, just go with audio only and consider distributing via a podcast hosting platform like Simplecast which can handle private podcasts. If visuals are important, Vimeo has been a good hosting platform in my experience. If you're distributing media to folks who have paid for the event, don't worry about protecting the media. They've paid for an experience and the benefits of having skin in the game, so don't worry about folks sharing or stealing the private videos or podcast feed or whatever. Your focus and brilliance is needed in the experience design and content creation room, not the digital rights management room.
  • Assign homework at the end of each lecture. The homework should engage your participants reflecting, thinking, writing, or creating muscles. It should be a small, manageable amount of work to avoid participants falling behind. It might have to be a "scale model" of something rather than a full-size version of that thing. Describe the homework at the end of each lecture, give tips for approaching it, and also have a text version of the homework available wherever your curriculum exists online.
  • Encourage participants to sign up for presentation slots. This means they agree to present their homework during the next meeting. Make it both emotionally safe and physically flexible for them to present. Emotional safety comes from being able to prepare, knowing their contribution will be valued, and knowing critique will be couched in a desire to understand more deeply. Flexibility comes from knowing that there are a variety of ways to present, ranging from talking through some bullet points to presenting a quickly-made slide deck (people in my workshops seem to gravitate towards Google Slides for this). If you need to pre-arrange to have a "shill" demonstrate this safety and flexibility, do so.
  • Make it your goal to find ways to prime the participation pump such that by the end of the event, everybody has participated in a meaningful way. This might be done by individually recruiting people for presentation slots, asking challenging open-ended questions in Slack, or calling on people during meetings in a low-stakes way.
  • Again, keep the tooling simple. Favor stuff that's reliable and easy to use. Zoom, a free Slack plan, and Google's suite of tools are an excellent online education stack.

That's the basic recipe I use for my workshops. It's been a successful one so far, so you can copy with confidence that it's a good starting point.

As I conclude this article, I find myself feeling really positive, even in the midst of a very tough time (pandemic, economic slowdown, etc.). This is because I can see a possible future where speaking to educate, inspire, or generate leads is:

  • Less demanding of great speaking-on-stage skills
  • Less costly
  • More accessible to more people who would have avoided it when IRL speaking was the best game in town

Again, I'm not blind to the downsides of online vs. IRL, and I'm very aware of what you give up with the move online. But if you are willing to adapt to the fundamentally different medium, the move to online doesn't have to be a loss.

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